A New Era for Duke University: Embracing a Test-Optional Future and Rethinking Admissions Essays

Jed Applerouth, PhD
March 7, 2024
min read
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Duke University is affirming its test-optional admissions policy by removing standardized testing from its quantitative rating of applicants, as it simultaneously removes admissions essays from the same algorithm.

With essays and testing removed, the four remaining categories, scored on a 5-point scale, are curricular strength, GPA, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. The quantitative score has long been used to “identify competitive applicants,” per Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s long-standing Dean of Undergraduate Admissions.


Testing will continue to impact admissions decisions, but it is no longer part of the numerical rating assigned to all applicants. Students with competitive test scores should certainly include them in their applications to Duke, to validate their academic qualifications and readiness for the rigors of Duke.

Duke was one of the 12 colleges and universities that participated in the research study conducted by Raj Chetty and Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights team, which validated the unique contribution of standardized testing, and revealed the negative impacts of grade inflation on the predictive power of high school GPA.

By de-emphasizing testing, Duke has broken from the pack, as other members of the group, including MIT, Dartmouth, and Yale have reinstated testing requirements.


Guttentag told the Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, that “essays are no longer receiving a score because of a rise in the use of generative artificial intelligence and college admissions consultants.” With too many proverbial cooks in the kitchen, the essay is no longer “an accurate reflection of the student’s actual writing ability.”

Essays will be used to “help understand the applicant as an individual,” to help tell the student’s story, but there is no assumption that the student can independently write at the level of the submitted essay.

Generative AI is in its infancy, and the writing ability of Large Language Models such as Open AI’s Chat GPT and Google’s Gemini is steadily improving with every iteration of the software.

How broadly will this ripple through the admissions process? How many schools will follow Duke’s lead? Will other schools potentially look to some form of proctored writing assessment to ensure the authenticity of a student’s writing sample?

In a previous time, the writing sample on the SAT and ACT served this function, though the SAT writing assessment is no more, and that of the ACT is used by only a small subset of students. As more students turn to AI to supplement their own skills, this could have broad implications across the educational and admissions landscape.

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